How we scaffolded critical reflection

By the canal, licensed for use under the creative commons.
By the canal, licensed for use under the creative commons.

We ((And by we, I mean my co-instructor Dr. Erin Aspenlieder and I.)) made a significant change in the way we “taught” critical reflection in UNIV*6800: University Teaching, Theory and Practice in the fall of 2013. To measure the success of our change, we asked students rate their confidence in their ability to reflect critically on their learning and teaching practices before the course and at the end of the course ((This is in the model of a self-evaluation method called pre-post-then; in this case assessing post-then. See this article (opens in a new window) for more information on pre-post-then.)).

To do so, we asked them to disagree or agree with the following statement on a scale of 1 – 4, where 1 was “strongly disagree” and  4 was “strongly agree”: “I feel confident in my ability to critically reflect on my learning and teaching practices.” Students self-rated agreement with that statement increased from 2.1 before the course to 3.7 after the course, with all respondents (n=18) either agreeing (3 on the scale) or strongly agreeing (4 on the scale) that they now feel confident in their abilities to reflect on their teaching practices. Granted, while these are only descriptive statistics, I would suggest they do illustrate a trend in the student’s perceptions on undertaking critical reflection and the impact of our process.

So: what did we do? Based on research I conducted for a presentation at STLHE ((STLHE=The Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.)) in 2013 on best practices in “teaching” critical reflection ((Also outlined in this blog post.)) we redesigned how we introduced critical reflection, scaffolded the activity and “built” the assignment.

Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the assignment (with the educational rationale behind the decision indented below each point):

It was a series of three submissions (each around 750 words).

  • Three submissions modelled the ongoing nature of critical reflection; it also required students to practice the skill of critical reflection. I believe that getting students to do critical reflections over the course of the semester is key in learning the skill (and three appears to be  a sweet spot between repetition and being repetitive).

We wrote two critical reflections and posted them to the course website as exemplars

  • Erin and I were demonstrating that we took the skill seriously and provided students’ with two exemplars of what critical reflection “looks like” (or, at least, what we think it looks like).

After introducing what critical reflection was, the first submission was assigned and completed in-class.

  • By having students write their first critical reflection in class, we were trying to limit the time they could spend on the assignment and lower the stakes of the assignment. Additionally, the material concerning components is fresh—students have to spend less time recalling just what they’re supposed to being doing.

I used the same time and prompt to write a critical reflection.

  • Completing this with students in-class was helpful for me as I was able to share the difficulties of the experience and what mistakes I made (like spending too much time on describing the situation and not enough time on critical reflection).

Each student was provided formative feedback by at least one of the course instructors before the next submission was due.

  • Prompt feedback was key for helping students understand where they were doing well with the skill and where they could grow for the next submission. Students had the option of submitting reflections to a blog ((With mixed results.)); if they chose that option, both Erin and I would comment on their submission meaning that they would get additional feedback or prompts for further thought. In some cases, students even responded to our comments, furthering the conversation.

The second and third submission were designed to be completed outside of class.

  • Increasing the complexity of the assignment.

We provided prompts for the first and second critical reflections; a single prompt for the first submission and a choice of three prompts for the second submission.

  • Prompts are defined in the critical reflection lit as a dilemma or critical incident that inspires the critical reflection; while in “real life” a teacher will uncover the dilemma or critical incident themselves, providing prompts reduces the cognitive load of the student so that they can concentrate on the skill of writing a critical reflection rather than the need to also find something to reflect about. The lit also suggests that choice in prompts also increases the relevance for learners, so we increased the complexity of the second critical reflection (and the relevance) by offering a choice of three prompts.

No prompt was provided for the third.

  • The end point of the scaffolded assignment ((Scaffolding is defined as breaking up learning into manageable steps to reduce a student’s cognitive load and encouraging progressive learning.)).

We did, however, provide them a focus for their third critical reflection: a submission on their practice teaching session.

  • The third submission was the most “authentic” critical reflection as not only were students responsible for selecting their own prompt, but the reflection needed to be based on a practice teaching session they facilitated. This was designed to mimic their typical use of critical reflection as university educators.

So, that was our process. While not perfect, it did work significantly better than previous years with the quality of critical reflections improving by the third submission and student’s self-rated comfort with critical reflection increasing over the course of the semester. What process do you use to teach critical reflection to students?

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